Larva-like robot can navigate tiny, enclosed spaces

"In the future, our robot can carry drugs and deliver them to a desired location where they are most needed, much like a doorstep delivery," researcher Metin Sitti said.

Brooks Hays

Jan. 25 (UPI) -- Engineers at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems have designed a tiny, soft-bodied robot capable of navigating tight, enclosed spaces. The so-called millirobot is modeled after the larvae of beetles and caterpillars.

The magnetically-controlled robot measures four millimeters in length and looks like a tiny tab of paper. The body of the rectangular millirobot is made of a soft elastic polymer.


Unlike other tiny bots with limited mobility, the new robot has an impressive ability to navigate dynamic terrain.

"We looked at the physical mechanism of locomotion of soft-bodied caterpillars and jellyfishes and took inspiration from them," Metin Sitti, a professor and researcher at MPI, said in a news release. "The result is that our millirobot is a mix of small-scale soft-bodied animals, such as a beetle larva, a caterpillar, a spermatozoid, and a jellyfish."

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Scientists embedded a pattern of magnetic particles in the tiny strip of polymer. Using extremely precise external magnetic fields, researchers can torque the bot's body into a wide variety of positions, enabling a complex range of motion.

The variety of contortions allows the bot to jump over obstacles, roll across surfaces, scoot through narrow passages and even move both on and in water.

"In the future, our robot can carry drugs and deliver them to a desired location where they are most needed, much like a doorstep delivery," Sitti said. "We would use it for minimally invasive medical applications inside the human body: it would be delivered through swallowing or a cavity on the skin and make its way through the digestive or urinary tract, abdominal cavity, or heart surface."

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Researchers described their breakthrough bot this week in the journal Nature.

The bot's most promising applications are in the biomedical field. Scientists could potentially use the tiny bot to study and treat disease. Researchers have already tested the millirobot inside chicken tissue and a synthetic surgical stomach model.

"Currently it is not possible to access many small regions inside the human body without surgery, but our target is to reach such regions non-invasively and conduct diagnostic and therapeutic operations with our soft robots," Sitti said.

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